A number of years ago a Princeton philosophy professor, Harry Frankfurt, gave a brilliant lecture, “On Bullshit,” which was later published as a very short book. In the book Frankfurt spends some time defining the term, distinguishing it from similar concepts, like a lie or humbug. He suggests that bullshit is something that is “grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.”
Frankfurt acknowledges that there are some positive uses of bullshit. It sometimes just allows us to get along. Rather than struggle at all times with everyone over what the truth is, bullshit is something that we all spout and accept as — if you will excuse the imagery — a type of social lubricant. We would never be able to get along in large organizations without a fair amount of bullshit, which is part of why we see so much of it in all of our work lives. Politics, which requires managing conflict, is also a bullshit-laden activity.
While bullshit is unavoidable and sometimes useful, it is overall a very destructive thing. As Frankfurt puts it, “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” It is corrosive to the very process by which we seek truth by embracing an indifference to the truth. The triumph of bullshit is not the triumph of falsehood, but the triumph of nihilism. Bullshit makes us not care about the truth, so why should we care about anything? To maintain a good society, bullshit must be held in check.
Unfortunately, Frankfurt suspects that bullshit is growing, not being held in check. It is growing, he suggests because bullshit is a part of communication and as communication grows so does bullshit. We are talking all of the freakin’ time and on all matters of public and private concern. The extent to which we are communicating about all of these things far exceeds our ability to know the truth of them or even be concerned with the process of discovering the truth about them. Facebook and Twitter pre-date Frankfurt’s lecture, but they nicely illustrate the relationship between increasing communication and increasing bullshit. Frankfurt also blames the rise of bullshit partially on post-modern philosophies that actively promote and rationalize an indifference to the truth.
But I suspect that there is another force at work in the growth of bullshit. I suspect that as violence becomes less permissible within modern societies, bullshit has substituted for violence as a mechanism for manipulating or coercing others. The famous Prussian military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, once said “War is the continuation of policy by other means.” I think bullshit is the continuation of violence by other means.
Earlier in our country’s history, before the domestic use of violence was so limited, differences were often settled through violence. When Carnegie Steel was faced with a strike at a Pittsburgh plant, Henry Clay Frick called out 300 Pinkerton detectives who killed 16 striking workers and wounded 23 more. Unions were similarly known to take baseball bats to workers who crossed their picket lines.
So when a modern day Andrew Carnegie, like Bill Gates, wants to have his way, he doesn’t hire a private army of Pinkerton detectives to beat us into submission. Instead, he hires an army of foundation staff and advocacy organizations to spout bullshit. And in response the unions don’t take up baseball bats, they take up blogging. Violence, like bullshit, is indifferent to truth; it is simply a mechanism for prevailing. As violence becomes less available as a strategy for winning a dispute, bullshitting becomes more prominent.
If bullshit is on the rise and is corrosive to a good society, how can we limit or even reduce it? Science and its weaker sister, social science, are the antitheses of bullshit. They are enterprises entirely committed to the pursuit of truth. Unfortunately, bullshit has infiltrated science and social science as those activities become more politicized and embedded within large bureaucratic organizations. The scientist or social scientist may be as likely to promote bullshit as to man the barricades against it. Instead, we need something stronger, more resistance to corruption, than the scientist to fight bullshit. We need the skeptic.
The skeptic is someone entirely devoted to the task of discovering and debunking bullshit. The skeptic may be a scientist but often isn’t. And the skeptic can often be mistaken about what is and is not bullshit. But the skeptic is always on the prowl for bullshit and is even more committed to the process of finding truth than the mere scientist is.
Penn Jillette and Teller are worthy of “The Al” because they are the most active and effective skeptics of our era. They are illusionists who have extended their professional interest in deceiving others for entertainment into a professional interest in uncovering and debunking the deception of bullshit for entertainment. For eight seasons they hosted a series on Showtime that was, appropriately enough, called Bullshit. They targeted everything from alternative medicine to recycling to lie detectors to the Bible. The have also crusaded (irony intended) against bullshit in their stage show, in magazine articles, and in TV appearances on other people’s shows. Penn and Teller speak truth to bullshit.
As it is, we are already knee-deep in bullshit. Were it not for the efforts of skeptics like Penn and Teller we might well need a life raft. For this, they deserve “The Al.“